New TSU president earns high marks
from students, alums for moves
to reenergize campus life
By Lindsay Ellis • Houston Chronicle . October 28, 2016
Austin Lane, who has been named Texas Southern's next president, poses for a portrait on Wednesday, May 18, 2016, in Houston. Fans of the Texas Southern University Tigers were tailgating before the Oct. 22 homecoming football game when the university's new president joined the revelry. He held up his wife's phone, turned his back to the crowd and snapped a selfie.
That day, Austin Lane passed the first big test of his presidency: hosting a homecoming week that students and alumni enjoyed.
In his first four months at the helm, Lane has made progress to reengage alumni and students at TSU, an historically black university struggling with low graduation rates, meager state funding and sharp enrollment declines over the past several years.
Lane, formerly executive vice chancellor at Lone Star College System in Montgomery County, said he thinks improving the overall college experience for students will lead to more of them earning a bachelor's degree and a higher enrollment rate. In turn, graduates who leave with a stronger connection to the university will be more apt as alumni to donate money and time to the college.
"I want to be an advocate for students" because I was one of them, said Lane, who attended Langston University, the only historically black university in Oklahoma. "I know how tough it is to get through school. Their lived experience, I lived it."
Since June when he took the reins from the school's previous leader who had a strained relationship with students, faculty and regents, Lane has worked to restore the administration's reputation and listen closely to students' concerns. In response, his first priorities included improving campus safety and identifying operational problems to correct, such as maintenance issues and the school's onerous course registration process.
Homecoming was his debut to alumni. Those who took part in the annual tradition praised his decision to bring back the parade to the Third Ward campus area from downtown Houston and to allow Greek organizations to paint and decorate the trees on the campus Tiger Walk for the first time in years.
One evening during a homecoming event, Lane got on stage and drew cheers from the crowd as he participated in a comedy show. He danced and greeted performers with a hug and a handshake.
"He's a very humble guy, a very cool guy," said Emmett Malik Earle, a senior studying public affairs.
Several alums who returned to campus for homecoming said they hope the renewed student spirit translates to more successful fund-raising that would support students's financial needs as they work toward graduation.
"He's going to know how to get into our pockets," said alum Damon Carroll, 41, as he watched the parade.
Strong traditions and approachable administrators are what students expect when they attend a black college, said Derrick Mitchell, chairman of TSU's board of regents. Embracing the student body "was the one thing that was number one to us as a board" when TSU regents interviewed candidates and selected Lane in May to succeed John Rudley as university president. Lane, 45, agreed to a three-year contract, paying him $398,000 in the first year plus benefits.
Students demand a safer campus
TSU's graduation rate of full-time students within six years of enrolling stands at 16 percent, much lower than the national average of 42 percent. Only 53 percent of students return after freshman year, compared with the national average of 68 percent.
Lane attributes those subpar numbers in part to financial need. "They stop ... because they can't afford it," he said of TSU students. With the start of fall semester, the university reallocated $320,000 to hire eight freshman advisers to help new students plan a more efficient degree path.
Lane said he wants to expand enrollment from 8,900 to 15,000 students by 2020. The student body now includes about 25 percent fewer students than in 2005. To reverse the enrollment slide, Lane plans to forge deeper relationships with Houston public schools and local community colleges, including Lone Star College where as an administrator he played a pivotal role increasing full-time enrollment.
TSU competes for students with area community colleges and the University of Houston-Downtown, Mitchell said.
"These kids, to their credit, they expect more than what they were getting,'' he said. "We have to be accountable."
Some of that accountability comes from a more vigilant public eye. Last fall, there were multiple shootings on or near campus that killed two students. After that, a campaign called Take Back TSU started and many students spoke up, demanding a safer campus. Lane points to subsequent safety improvements, including replacing 556 exterior lights around campus with bright LED bulbs, as a response to students' concerns.
Christina Letsinger, founder of the Take Back TSU movement, said she now feels comfortable walking home after her evening class ends at 8:30 p.m.
"You'll see students in front of the student centers, outside the library with a book," said Letsinger, a senior studying entertainment and recording management and also a student engagement officer for TSU campus police.
The university also introduced smartphone software that lets students send messages and their locations to TSU police when requesting an in-person police escort or share their locations with friends and family if they feel unsafe.
Asking the state for a fair share
Lane has begun to prepare for perhaps his greatest challenge: the 2017 Texas legislative session, where he hopes to persuade lawmakers to give TSU more money.
During the 2015 session, the Legislature allocated $329 million more in higher education funding statewide using a formula tied largely to enrollment, but TSU saw its funding decline by $3.5 million, the largest drop among colleges statewide. Nearby, by comparison, the University of Houston received nearly $25 million more than the previous session.
In addition to its standard funding, TSU has asked for $8.1 million for a summer pre-matriculation program, more consistent student advising, expansion of online education and investments in the university's pharmacy program.
Leading a historically black college is a difficult job, Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, said in an email. Many students are low income and the first generation in their families to go to college. They struggle to complete college in four years, so the school can have limited access to performance- or enrollment-based state funding, she said.
Given those circumstances, the culture at an institution like TSU, is "deeply important," she said. "You have to restore the heart to get the body to work well."
Lane's hiring was part of that ongoing effort. Last year, the TSU faculty senate voted it had no-confidence in Lane's predecessor, months after he offered his resignation. To begin to mend fences, Lane attended a faculty senate meeting over the summer and has met with professors in different departments.
Political science professor Luis Perez-Feliciano, a faculty senate member, said the faculty views Lane as a leader committed to academics.
Rudley, who did not return telephone or email requests for comment for this story, recently tweeted that in his nine years as TSU president, he "faced every problem that a university president has to deal with." He listed the millions of dollars needed for deferred campus maintenance, budget shortfalls and building restoration after Hurricane Ike in September 2008.
"After 9 years of fighting to solve a host of problems at TSU, I did not want to continue to try and lift all boats up when it was not wanted," Rudley said in the tweets, which he sent to promote his forthcoming book.
Lane said he disagreed with that characterization. He described TSU's campus environment as collaborative and said he's focused on how he can make a positive difference.
On Sunday, Oct. 23 after the busy week of homecoming programming concluded, Lane boarded a flight to Washington D.C. for a White House conference on historically black colleges.
"We just jump right from one deal to the next," he said, noting there's no time to relax as a college president.